jumbos-restaurant_web.jpgFlorida International University

Jumbo’s, the iconic Liberty City restaurant that was among the first to integrate at the end of the Jim Crow era, will be featured in an upcoming Inc. Magazine feature, Entrepreneurs We Love.

Inc. editors would not reveal why they chose Jumbo's. But the restaurant, owned by the Flam family for 55 years, has played a prominent role in the Liberty City community and the black community in Miami.

The Flams served and hired blacks before almost any other businesses in Miami. More than two dozen white employees quit when they did.

The restaurant at 7501 NW Seventh Ave., open round-the-clock, is  the only white-owned establishment that did not close after the 1980 McDuffie riots that gutted parts of Liberty City, leaving 18 dead, some $100 million in damage and 3,000 people out of work.

But Flam, 65, makes little of the restaurant’s history. To him, it’s not about color, it’s about food.

“Black people, white people, I’m not a racist,” he said, chuckling. “I’ll serve whites!”

Over the years, Jumbo’s offerings of fried shrimp, conch, mac’n’cheese, pigeon peas and rice, not to mention its homemade sweet potato pie, has garnered the coveted James Beard Award for American Classic Restaurant and nine years of positive reviews from Zagat, as well as kudos from New Times, WSVN-Channel 7, Ocean Drive and New York magazines and even the Japanese edition of GQ.

As freelance Inc. photographer Colby Katz snapped pictures recently of the restaurant’s well-worn interior, replete with black-and-white vinyl tile, 1950s vintage red formica table tops and wall-to-wall posters celebrating local schools, celebrity customers and deceased customers, Flam reminisced about the place he bought from his father, Isadore,  more than 44 years ago.

While photographs can portray the building and its people, they cannot capture struggles the restaurant has seen, especially since Hurricane Wilma left the establishment not so picture perfect at the same time business plummeted.

“The last five years have been rough. My business stinks,” said Flam, who, nonetheless frequently gives away food to customers and local organizations. “It’s a combination of the bad economy and the bad neighborhood image. I want to bring the neighborhood back.”

And that’s what he tries to do.

“I feed the homeless, I donate to the churches, I don’t have a problem with crime,” he said, knocking on a nearby Formica counter in the absence of wood.

Minnie Iceson, 76, has been coming to Jumbo’s for 30 years. She used to come with members of her church every Sunday but not anymore, because so many of her friends no longer drive.

“It has a good seafood dinner and it’s not that expensive,” Iceson said.

George Mack, 81, has been eating grits and eggs every morning at Jumbo’s for a comparatively short 15 years.

“It makes me feel proud that I’m one of the number,” said Mack. “It makes me proud that we can all come together as human beings.”

High school students come almost every week to hold football rallies at the restaurant and its signature dishes carry names such as Miami Edison Red Raiders Special – conch, shrimp and two sides, for $19.63 — and the Little River Elementary chicken fingers — no description is necessary—at $6.99.

Jumbo’s is also a political hub, displaying campaign signs for every party and candidate. Also on the menu is the “Obama special” — two cheeseburgers, fries and a 16-ounce drink for $4.67.

And to Flam, Jumbo’s is the same as life, it is his life and he hopes he and his restaurant can both stick around.

“Life is like a challah,” he said, referring to the traditional braided egg bread Jews eat on holidays. “It has its ups and it has its downs.”

Suray Dieleman may be reached at sdiel002@fiu.edu.